Generate Loooooots of Ideas

Sometimes people think there’s one obvious answer to seemingly vexing design questions. Plain and simple: this is wrong. Your gut instinct might be telling you that there’s only one way to go about solving a problem, but this is an incorrect assumption. When you try, and I mean really try, you’ll find many answers to your issues.

When designing a feature for a website, for example, I typically recommend 3-6 options before choosing a “winner.” When designing a whole system of features, it’s helpful to at least think of one alternative. Sometimes the obvious answer wins, most of the time it doesn’t, and all of the time you’re better off for having thought deeply about a problem before jumping to conclusions.

There are a few reasons why you might generate lots of design ideas before settling on one:

  1. Generating many ideas forces you to get your ideas out of your head and onto the some paper. At the very least, this will help you understand what you are thinking.
  2. If you’re working with others, generating ideas will help to flesh out exactly what the “obvious” answer is. (Hint: it typically isn’t the same for everyone.)
  3. You’re bound to think of some really cool solutions when you’re forced to think hard about a design problem. You’ll impress yourself with your creativity. Sure, some of your concepts will be less feasible than others, but that’s ok. Just generate, and worry about implementation later (though not too much later).
  4. It’s a fun process, and I’m all for fun at work.
Lots of ideas, on paper
Lots of ideas, on paper

A few tips & tricks

  • Just get ideas out, don’t judge them – Trust me, at some point you’ll feel a strong urge to think something like, “naaaw, that idea will never work…”. Get over it, and while you’re at it, stop being so negative. Just get the ideas on paper, and leave all the judgement to your future self.
  • Don’t think every idea has to be hugely different, just focus on little changes – Maybe you won’t generate whole new ways of thinking about your topic, but will think of a million little tweaks you could try. That works! Just go with it.
  • If it becomes really difficult, stop – This should go without saying in many avenues of life. Seriously though, if you can’t think of any more concepts, you’re done. This does not, however, give you license to quit early. Sometime concept generation takes a little practice.
  • Don’t worry if your sketches are more like scratches – As long as you understand them, it doesn’t matter one bit.
  • Use a 6-up template to guide your designs (PDF download) – This 6-up is from Leah Buley and it’s straightforward enough. Print one out and give it a try.

Have fun generating!

On Winter and Payback

I spent nearly an hour this afternoon digging my car out from a pile of snow and slippery ice. I had done the same thing yesterday, though it was less ice and much more snow. Winter in a cold climate tests one’s will to commune. All those hours holed up indoors means that you’re not interacting with people, nature, or the world in general.

This afternoon I was convinced that it was time to get out. Time to persevere (against a zero-degree temperature) and try, at least a little, to get something done. So I packed my side bag and headed out to the gym. That’s when I met my hurdle: digging out the car.

I started the activity the way I normally do: by starting up the engine (because if it’s too cold for that to happen, then there’s no point in the rest) and blasting the defroster. I then brushed and scraped the car, and checked the tires to make sure they were in a good position to free themselves. Everything looked fine, and as I waited for my windshield to fully defrost I thought positively about how I would get out of my spot. I pictured the car rocking gently back and forth and then, almost comically, jumping out of its spot and onto the nice, soft, well-plowed street.

The ease of my vision was not to be in real life. I rocked my car plenty, but managed to get myself stuck and re-stuck three times. Yes, that’s right, I said three times. Each time I ran into my apartment building and grabbed the steel-headed shovel, ran back outside and cleared as much ice as I could away from the wheels. And each time I found myself stuck again, only to repeat the whole process.

Finally, in frustration, I decided to give up. This was enough of a workout for the day. Shoveling snow is not as easy as it may sound. You have to realize that that soft snowy powder that you may be picturing eventually turns into big, heavy boulders of ice and hard rocks. (This is why there are many heart attacks during winter…people forget how difficult it is to shovel snow.) As I surveyed where my car lay, I realized I was blocking an alleyway. So not only was I stuck and ready to give up, but I also had to do something to get myself unstuck.

Luckily, a nice man from the next apartment over had seen my struggle and came outside to offer a hand. After a bit of pushing he was unable to free me from the predicament. We talked about strategy for a few minutes, and then another man showed up. “Easy on the gas, real easy,” he said. Another couple of heaves and ten seconds later my car was free.

When I returned home a bit later after a drive to cool my insides down I found a nice parking spot that should be a bit easier to get out of. As I approached my apartment I spotted a car with its wheels spinning. With the driver accelerating, I pushed the car out of its spot. A few minutes later when I ran to my car to pick up the forgotten shovel, I spotted the man I had pushed out helping yet another stranger. As I passed he waved and said thanks, and I relayed my story of just an hour earlier. We laughed it off and shared a, “yup, it’s finally really winter again” moment.

This is what it’s like to live in Chicago. It’s a city that’s tough as it is soft. It’s a place where people push past and look out for each other. A place where we don’t interact much in the winter, but when it’s needed, people are glad to lend a hand.

This is where I live and despite the tough parts, I love when the gentle, helpful side of this city emerges. It’s like no other place I’ve lived.

Friday Funnies

Alright, I know, it’s Thursday. Still, we’re cutting ourselves some slack this week because tomorrow is a day off. Happy independence day everyone. Enjoy these:

  1. Eddie Murphy's Huge Head
    I know, random, right? Posted by flickr user hhhitshayley

Heading home to my Valentine

It’s been a really freaking long road trip. After 18 days away, I’m ready to be home for a while. It just blows my mind that I’ll be back on a plane on Sunday. Ahh, the glamorous life of a traveling consultant.

So, my favorite story to tell on Valentine’s day involves my little sister. See, when she was little instead of saying “Valentine’s Day” she said “Valenstein Day.” I don’t think there was a reason behind it, that’s just how she thought it was said. My parents thought this was really funny, and I guess I did too a little bit (apart from her getting all the laughs and stealing attention from me ;-)). My parents always used to say, “Ooooooh, Valenstein day. She must be talking about the Jewish version of Valentine’s Day.” Funny funny. I guess you had to be there.

Anyway, Happy Valentines Day everyone. Enjoy it. 🙂

Where is Josh these days?

Great question, weblog.

Well, for the past few weeks I’ve been in Chicago, toiling away on the ThoughtWorks beach. Man, I never feel so busy as when I’m on the beach (the time you get when you’re not on a project). There are always a ton of projects to work on…people constantly asking for some time. But it’s fun. I get to see a lot of new stuff, and occasionally get the feeling that I really am helping. But that’s work, and I want to talk about play…

Right now I’m in Phoenix, AZ, preparing for my cousin Lindsay’s Bat Mitzvah, which is tomorrow morning. She’s gonna rock it. Until then I’m working and hanging with family.

Then it gets interesting. After Lindsay’s party tomorrow evening, I’m headed straight to the airport. Then I’ll jump on a redeye flight to New York, which will put me there in time to catch another flight to Israel. “ISRAEL!?” I hear you say. Yup, cool huh?

Karen’s already there and we’re going to be doing some real, relaxing vacationing. Can you tell I’m psyched? Well I am.

There will be a lot going on in Israel, touristy stuff, a wedding here and there, and some hanging out with family. Good times. I should still have regular internet access though, so feel free to drop a line. 🙂

Agile Design, a response to my friend’s quandary

This evening Kynthia‘s thoughts got me thinking. Among other things, she said:

“[W]e design heads get in this place where, just because we wouldn’t be caught dead releasing something into the wild, we think there is nothing to learn from it.”

My brain took her thoughts on a tangent and went this way:

So since I started my job at ThoughtWorks, my role has pretty much been defined by this exact issue. See, we use agile development methods, which often means that the stuff I’m designing might be built tomorrow, or at the latest in the next few weeks, which leads to some pretty interesting questions, such as:

  • If I had to hand over my design in the next [time limit], what would be the most important part(s) to get across? So what should I spend my time on?
  • How can my design(s) make the greatest impact in the short run?
  • How can my design(s) be flexible enough that they’ll support more advanced interactions and further redesign (without simply adding features) in the long run?
  • How much does my design cost, in terms of real dollars and development time? Is there anything I can do to make it less expensive without hurting the users (too much)?
  • Will the brilliant, awesome, amazing design I’ve just created embrace change if it turns out users really don’t like something about it? Or will it fail miserably…which might be a good thing if it motivates the product owners to spend more money to fix it.

Indeed, I believe us “design heads” need to wrap our brains around the idea that the “ideal design solution” can be super-difficult, and sometimes impossible to implement, if for no other reason than the person with the money doesn’t feel like splurging for a great user experience. Given this situation, it’s important that we release our ideas into the world early and often, even if they aren’t perfect. Putting our ideas out into the world lets them get stomped on, beat up, and improved to the point where while they may not be ideal, they’ll at least be better.

Iteration, baby, that’s the name of the game. It turns out when we designers draw and write and specify and prototype and mock-up our designs in our oh-so-ritualistic way, we end up with an unintended by-product: intimidation. See, even if our brilliant, perfected ideas aren’t intimidating to the teams of programmers that have to build them, they’ll often be super-intimidating to those who have to pay for them. See, the more realistic/difficult/etc. our designs look on paper or other prototyped form, the higher the perceived cost. Let’s look at a formula to really help this sink in:

C(p) = -I(L)

Now, I haven’t taken a math class in years, so that formula probably means nothing at all. Ignore it for now. What I mean to say is that the higher the perceived cost, the lower the likelihood of implementation. This all seems pretty simple, and it is, but sometimes it’s hard for us designers to break away from the idea that we need to perfect everything about our concepts. In fact, when we do this, it can be to our disadvantage.

Oh, and don’t think we’re not intimidating ourselves either! When was the last time you decided not to take on some project just because you knew it would take too long to really “do it right?” Yeah, it happens to me all the time too. We designers know how to intimidate ourselves as well.

So rather than perfecting, why don’t we try biting off just a little bit at a time? Design in terms of small, implementable, simple solutions to the problem at hand. Then expand on the concepts, and build them all the while…just a little at a time. Sure, some of that implementation will have to be redone as you go, but if it truly improves the end design, do it.

Of course, when you’re designing and building an enterprise level application, there’s a lot more structure and process that has to be involved in design, but I think for Kynthia’s case, an Agile development process is somewhat ideal. It gives you the opportunity to take a stab at a problem, implement something simple, learn from what you built/pondered/etc., and iterate.

Anyway, sorry for taking your thoughts on a tangent, Kynthia, but thank you for getting my brain cranking this evening. 🙂

Evolution vs. Revolution in Digital Design

iPhone presentation
Originally uploaded by Dan_H.

One distinction many people make when defining a design project is whether the design will be another evolution of an existing technique, set of tools, or technologies, or if it will be a revolutionary implementation. This decision is most often made implicitly, generally without any direct thought about revolutionary design…the creation of ideas that enable a new paradigm of designed interactions.

Such was the case in the mobile phone industry until last month. For years we had seen absolute crap when it came to the design of mobile phones. Motorola, Nokia, LG, Samsung…they’re all guilty. Each of them simply evolved their phone solutions, simply adding functonality year after year, rather than assessing how users’ experiences might be enhanced as technology evolved.

Now, Apple has designed the iPhone, which rethinks how people can interact with their mobile phones. Apple didn’t simply sit around and design the next thing that makes sense…they did the leg work of thinking how the mobile phone could be simplified, how specific interactions could be made easier, how to make functionality make better sense.

Why was Apple able to do this? Why is it ok for them to rethink the design of the phone, while all the other big names just sat around and evolved? I’ve got a few ideas:

  1. They had nothing to lose.
  2. They’re not afraid of losing a few customers to excite many others.
  3. They realize that good design doesn’t necessarily cater to everyone, but works well for those who are meant to use it.
  4. Design is a first class citizen at Apple.

We should all take a lesson from Apple and their iPhone. Sometimes playing it safe, and simply evolving, is not the best progress. Sometimes it is ok to shock and awe…when the end product is much better than anything else available. We need to rethink our interactions with customers, and not necessarily just stand by the same ol’ same old, but rethinking the way the computer can enhance human performance.